Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

An Academic Defense of Affirmative Action


That’s what Insider Higher Ed treats us to today — in an interview with James Sterba, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and author of a new book, Affirmative Action for the Future. My posted comments:

1. Some kinds of “affirmative action” are uncontroversial, as a matter of law or policy, like taking positive steps to ensure no discrimination, or recruiting far and wide to ensure the best possible pool of candidates. But affirmative discrimination — favoring some over others because of race — assuredly is controversial.

2. In this interview, at least, the author does not seem to be very forthcoming in acknowledging that he is defending such discrimination. He is also wrong in calling the various ballot propositions banning it deceptive, and he is being deceptive in suggesting that they banned all affirmative action, since they did not (see point one).

3. Of the three justifications he gives for affirmative action, the first does not involve discrimination, and the second (his favorite, apparently, based on his answer to the last question) is legally a nonstarter, since the Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected general, societal discrimination as an excuse for new, improved discrimination. The diversity rationale has Justice O’Connor’s expiration date on it, and may fall before that, since it is dubious legally and based on flimsy sociological evidence. And do we really want to use race as a proxy for what experiences and viewpoints someone brings to a campus?

4. But even if you think there are some benefits to affirmative discrimination, one must weigh them against the undeniable costs of such discrimination, and of course there is no mention of them here:  It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it breeds hypocrisy within the school; it encourages a scofflaw attitude among college officials; it mismatches students and institutions, guaranteeing failure for many of the former; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership.  In an increasingly multiethnic and multiracial society, we cannot embrace a legal regime that sorts people according to skin color and what country their ancestors came from, and treats some better and others worse depending on what box they have checked.


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